Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

To Infinity and Beyond!

with 20 comments

The title is one of those jokes that makes me laugh no matter how often I  hear it, I think it’s the autistic in me. It’s recursive, for lack of a better word, IE it sets up a dynamic that can never get resolved. Or maybe I’m just crazy. However, moving right along, this is the long awaited, little heralded post on travel to nearby stars. This is going to be completely off-the-cuff, no Internet research, speculation on my part. In other words, just for fun.

First off, is human travel to nearby stars possible? Absolutely. Sometimes people will quote the speed of the Pioneer Spacecraft and claim it would take thousands of years, so is thus impossible. And they are correct to a point, the Pioneers are the fastest moving star probes ever built. How this means that humans can’t build anything faster is never stated. I’ve got good news, while a warp drive is science fiction, mainstream engineering studies say that there’s no reason we can’t build something that can travel at 12% of the speed of light. So that’s assumption one, we can indeed build really fast spaceships.

OK, this means flight times to nearby stars of 50-100 years. Relativity would shave a bit off of that, but not much. This I think rules out sending astronauts to explore nearby star systems, so assumption two is that the first ships sent will be unmanned probes. Yes, it will take them a long time to get there, but the beauty of it is, once they are there they can send back information to us in just a few years. So assumption three is that probes are sent to dozens of nearby stars, with the hopes that within 50-100 years one of them will find a planet worth sending people too.

So OK, we find a planet within ten light years that looks like people could live there. Maybe by probes, maybe by remote sensing, humans discover a target planet for humans. This will be decades from now, won’t we be able to build faster spaceships? Well, maybe. The way relatively works is that the faster one goes, the more energy it takes to accelerate even faster. So there’s certain limits imposed simply by the nature of reality. So I’m assuming (number 4) that no magic answer will be found to get humans to nearby stars faster any time soon.

So we send really young crews and hope a few of them make it? If the trip time was fifty years, that would sort of work. Septuagenarian Star Trek crews exploring a nearby planet would make for some interesting story lines if nothing else.  I think it’s safer to say that small crews will be sent and encouraged to let nature take its course. Hopefully there would still be a few Earth born to help explore the new world. Most of the crew would have been born en route. Is this how we will do it? Off hand I think that what we know of human psychology in small isolated groups is not pretty. Sooner or later the men start killing each other over the women. Among other problems.

Maybe humans will spread to the stars in arks like this, all such expeditions would be one way. The one possible work around I can think of is human hibernation. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why not, and there is at least one observed example. If people spent 99% of the trip asleep they would only age a year or two, and the trip would be entirely doable.

So in conclusion, one way or the other, there is no practical reason why we can’t send out starships full of people to colonize nearby worlds in the next few centuries. It would be a high risk venture, and the costs would be enormous, but there’s at least one massive human money stream that could be diverted into this far more productive endeavour.

And heck, if we discover practical hibernation or some such, two way travel will be possible! Woohoo! Wait, no, I meant … no fucking way! I think with a little thought people will conclude that these ships be sent out so that there was absolutely no way they could be sent back. Columbus brought home syphilis, the AIDS of its day. There could be something out there that is not only more evil than we imagine, but it is more evil than we can imagine. Try not to think about that.

I think I’ll go look at the stars. Sleep tight!

(The image above does appear to be from Wikipedia, so I’m hoping it’s reasonably public domain. If the gentle reader knows what it is without looking it up, I’m impressed. If not, trust me, they are bad news. That will be the topic of my next post, bad news from the stars.)


Written by unitedcats

April 3, 2012 at 9:56 pm

20 Responses

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  1. dammit, that pic looks familiar

    Matt Johnsen

    April 3, 2012 at 10:28 pm

  2. This is just off the top of my head, too, but I seem to recall that it was Columbus and others after him who introduced the natives of North & South America to syphilis, not the other way around; same thing for Smallpox–they got it from us.


    April 4, 2012 at 7:43 am

    • Best current scientific guess is still that syphilis was brought back to Europe by Columbus, and it was most definitely widespread in the New World long before Europeans got there. Other diseases, yeah, European colonialism was the gift that kept on giving long after the ships had departed. :(


      April 4, 2012 at 8:04 am

  3. I too, wish they never cancelled “Firefly”…
    Problem with Americans in particular and humans in general (with the possible exception of the Red Chinese, who are planning on owning the entire world by 2200 A.D.) is they have no concept of time…
    It takes 4 minutes to order and receive lunch or dinner from a fast food place- you think anyone thinks of or cares about events beyond their lifetime?
    Btw if you can go 12% the speed of light, it can be extrapolated to 96% utilizing additional staging units. Good luck stopping, though…


    April 4, 2012 at 10:09 am

  4. Btw im a different Steve-” diseases in history” was one of my favorite classes- would’ve never said that.


    April 4, 2012 at 10:11 am

  5. I think radiation would be a problem, though I dunno what speed that begins to take effect.


    April 4, 2012 at 12:33 pm

  6. Radiation WOULD be a problem– good point. Cosmic & gamma rays go almost 186,262 miles per second. You dont have to move at all, like the popcorn in yr microwave.


    April 4, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  7. Actually, human travel to nearby stars is surely possible; we can indeed build really fast fusion-powered spaceships that can travel at 12% of the speed of light so people can colonize nearby worlds in the next few centuries.

  8. Radiation from what? The astronauts are endangered by solar radiation, that won’t be a problem in interstellar space, and presumably the ship has a radiation shelter at the very least. We’re also talking a ship with a huge beryllium shield to protect it against hitting dust and sand at relativistic velocities. Tons of the stuff, a significant percentage of Earth’s mined output to build one shield I believe. These ships are not going to be a trivial undertaking. Beryllium has some property that makes it perfect for this application, I think it’s highly ablative.


    April 4, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    • Cosmic radiation is not the same as solar, I think the Heliosphere actually protects us from intergalactic radiation. It would suck to get going and find out you can no longer have kids lol.


      April 5, 2012 at 6:52 am

  9. Ablative… Awesome word! SR-71 Blackbird was called the ‘ablative native.’ theres actually a bunch of bad shit out there to fry our DNA… Gamma ray bursts are (I think) the most powerful things in the universe… Plus who knows what dark energy is? I fear we are like our anciestors, wading into the sea and wondering what lies beneath (we still havent closed the book on that one, for that matter)


    April 4, 2012 at 8:27 pm

  10. To Infinity & Beyond.

    The Antinomy:


    April 5, 2012 at 5:33 am

  11. OK, I stand corrected, radiation is a major hazard in interstellar flight at relativistic velocities. Primarily because of the ships velocity through the interstellar medium though. Read the whole paper here. (PDF file)


    April 5, 2012 at 8:19 am

  12. Perhaps we can solve the energy and radiation problem someday by converting radiation directly to electricity, kinda like solar panels do with light.


    April 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm

  13. I’m sure that by the time we seriously consider interstellar travel, Apple will have released an app allowing us to fold space. Radiation will not be a concern.


    April 7, 2012 at 12:39 pm

  14. […] I was disappointed that no one identified the image on the first post. How are we supposed to defend ourselves against aliens if we can’t even identify the […]

  15. I don’t think this question has been answered: I believe the pic is of a Shadow vessel from the sci-fi series Babylon 5. I know, I’m just a nerd.


    May 7, 2012 at 11:55 pm

  16. Okay, now the serious reply on the subject matter. I hear a lot of stuff about space exploration and to be honest, I find much of it pretty over-optimistic, blue sky stuff. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a child of the space age. (See my old-fashioned web page at I love the idea of space exploration. I’m an avid follower of Star Trek. The space programs of various nations have done a lot to help us understand the planet on which we live, both from space-based observations of our own planet and observations of our neighbouring planets and other bodies in our solar system. But in the same way that I think APCs for police in small country towns are superfluous, I believe we also cannot support an expensive manned project to the stars in a world where we face rather more pressing problems.

    12% the speed of light? That would still place Proxima Centauri, our second closest star, 32 years travel away, not allowing time for acceleration and deceleration. That’s fine for an unmanned mission. For a manned mission, that’s a long time to keep the freezer running and they haven’t figured out how to thaw Walt Disney yet if its even possible without cell damage. Not to mention the amount of propelland we’d need to amass in orbit to accelerate a ship long enough to get it up to 12% the speed of light. We have ion drives in development. Okay for probes but I think acceleration and deceleration at the other end will take too long.

    So you want to send probes to planets in other solar systems? What is our capacity to build and launch interstellar probes? I mean, we churn out Earth-orbiting satellites at a decent rates. Probes to tour and take measurements of other planets (ala Voyager) less often, but an interstallar probe to land on planets in other solar systems? To send a probe to Mars we need to use carefully selected launch windows. How do you send a probe to synchronise orbits with an unknown planet in another solar system? And remember, you can’t land these things by remote control. At 4 or more light years away, any radio command designed to affect thruster control will take 4 years to arrive, way too late so save a ship. I suspect the capability will be some years away.

    So relativity may shave some time off but my understanding is you have to be over 90% the speed of light for that to be significant.

    I don’t like to put too much of a damper on things. I’d like to see mankind exploring the cosmos and realising the promise of Gene Roddenbery’s vision when he created Star Trek, but I wouldn’t like to see that happening at the expense of more pressing issues here on our own space ship planet Earth.


    May 8, 2012 at 12:24 am

    • Actually, there has been an unheralded but tremendous scientific breakthrough that will allow humanity to explore the galaxy in real time. Stay tuned.


      May 15, 2012 at 10:23 pm

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